History International Singapoke Translation

Why does Singapore own a random lighthouse 45km away on Johor’s west coast?

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With us sharing a border with four seven different countries and having a lot of islands in between, there’s bound to be some disputes and weirdness regarding which island belongs to whom. Perhaps you’ve already heard that in 2008, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had ruled that Pulau Batu Puteh (aka Pedra Blanca) belongs to Singapore.

While the ruling had been final and cannot be appealed, the ICJ had allowed for a review within 10 years of the ruling… which we didn’t do. 2018 had been the last chance to review, so maybe that’s why Dr Mahathir had recently said that Malaysia accepts the loss of Batu Puteh to Singapore.

Fare the well Batu Puteh... Fare the well. Img from NST.

Fare thee well Batu Puteh… Fare thee well. Img from NST.

That’s dandy and all, but in a recent Parliamentary sitting, another island issue between Malaysia and Singapore reared its head. This happened after the Pontian MP, Ahmad Maslan, asked the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs about… the status of a lighthouse on an island called Pulau Pisang in Johor.

Pulau Pisang itself belongs to Malaysia, but the lighthouse on it is under Singapore’s jurisdiction.

Now what kind of slip-up allowed that to happen? Well, like a bunch of other things, it traces back to our colonial days…

 

For some reason, the British gave Singapore the lighthouse but not the island

Where Pulau Pisang is at. Img from Google Maps.

Where Pulau Pisang is at. Img from Google Maps.

The waterway that includes the Straits of Malacca as well as Singapore had been important since olden times, as both a shipping lane and a global trading route. Which is why the British had always wanted to control these waterways. Pulau Pisang, the subject of this story, lies along this route.

In 1914, the British built a lighthouse on the peak of Pulau Pisang. The lighthouse serves as a navigative instrument to help ships heading to the west of the Straits of Malacca, into the Singapore Strait. Until this very day, the lighthouse is managed by Singapore through its Maritime and Ports Authority (MPA).

The Singaporean lighthouse in Malaysia. Img from Lighthouse Digest.

The Singaporean lighthouse in Malaysia. Img from Lighthouse Digest.

So how did this happen? Well, it traces back to an agreement between Sultan Ibrahim of Johore and Sir James Alexander Swettenham, the Governor of the Straits Settlements, in 1900.

In the agreement, the British acknowledged Johor’s sovereignty over Pulau Pisang, but at the same time Johor gave the British a permanent right to manage the lighthouse.

“…but it also signified an important event where the Sultan of Johor gave the British rights over the plot of land where the lighthouse stands, as well as the land lot where the road from the jetty to the lighthouse would be built.” – translated from a journal published by Universiti Malaya.

Sultan Sir Ibrahim ibni Almarhum Sultan Abu Bakar (1873 - 1959). Image from Kesultanan Johor.

Sultan Sir Ibrahim ibni Almarhum Sultan Abu Bakar (1873 – 1959). Image from Kesultanan Johor.

So when Singapore split from the Malaysian Federation in 1965, the duty of managing the lighthouse changed hands to Singapore, which is a former Strait Settlement. This is true to the international law concept of uti possidetis juris, which says that newly-formed sovereign states should retain the borders that their dependent area had before their independence. For Singapore, this includes the borders of the lighthouse area.

In 2003, Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister did say that Singapore never questioned Malaysia’s sovereignty over Pulau Pisang, but at the same time, the lighthouse will stay under Singapore’s control.

All is fine for a while…

 

Then of course Singapore kiasu and started to make the lighthouse bigger

Solar panels at Pulau Pisang's lighthouse. Img from TheSmartLocal.

Solar panels at Pulau Pisang’s lighthouse. Img from TheSmartLocal.

After a few years of managing the lighthouse, it seems that Singapore had expanded its territory at the peak of Pulau Pisang. For one, they have constructed a second fence which is 100 meters from the original fence. Singapore had also widened the road to ease the movement of heavy vehicles to the lighthouse.

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According to Dr Hazmi Rusli, a lecturer at Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM), Malaysian visitors to the island can’t even get close to the lighthouse.

“Singapore’s presence on the island showed, literally and figuratively, that Malaysia’s sovereignty over Pulau Pisang is not yet final.” – Dr Hazmi Rusli, translated from Utusan.

Also, he stated that Malaysia’s sovereignty over the island is at risk if left as it is.

Overreacting to a pisang much? Gif from Gfycat.

Overreacting to a pisang much? Gif from Gfycat.

Wah, so overreaction wan! But maybe not. Some may say that we would just be as kiasu if we care about a slightly wider road or the fence being pushed out a bit, but those extra few meters may lead to something much bigger that could potentially get them the whole island, as…

 

International law favors the side that manages a territory

In international law, there’s a thing called the actual exercise of sovereignty which refers to which side is the one actively conducting control, management or things like that in a territory.

An example would be the issue of Pulau Sipadan and Pulau Ligitan, which were once a source of dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia. When the case is taken up to the ICJ, the court at that time referred to the actual exercise of sovereignty or effective occupation, and whether or not it had been continuously done by the country that made the claim.

Since Malaysia had been doing the whole actual exercise of sovereignty on both islands, the ICJ ruled that Malaysia has sovereignty rights over Sipadan and Ligitan.

Newspaper clipping of Utusan Malaysia from 18th December 2002. Img from Institute of Land and Survey (INSTUN)

Newspaper clipping of Utusan Malaysia from 18th December 2002. Img from Institute of Land and Survey (INSTUN)

For the case of Pulau Batu Puteh, Singapore had for a long time done patrols near the island with nary a protest from Malaysia. Malaysia had also stayed silent when Singapore installed communication devices on the island since 1977, and also when Singapore did land reclamation at Batu Puteh.

“…in 1968, the Malaysian objected to the flying of our flag over the lighthouse, Singapore flag, in Pulau Pisang. They objected to the flag and we took it out. But they never objected then or later to the flying of the Singapore flag in Pedra Branca.” – Prof S Jayakumar, Singapore’s Foreign Minister, in 2003. Excerpt from National Archives of Singapore.

Since Singapore practiced actual exercise of sovereignty on Batu Puteh, the ICJ ruled that the island is theirs. (click here if you want to read more on that)

Singapore got big rock. We got smol rock. Img from Astro Awani.

Singapore got big rock. We got smol rock. Img from Astro Awani.

In the case of Pulau Pisang, according to Dr Hazmi, it would seem that Singapore is more actively involved with the lighthouse’s management, and it is done without any protest from Malaysia. If this continues, it is feared that Malaysia’s sovereignty over Pulau Pisang will come into question, especially on the land the lighthouse is built.

“…if Singapore manages to claim a small part of the territory on Pulau Pisang, they will also have the right to get naval territory in the Straits of Malacca that for now is only shared between two countries, Malaysia and Indonesia.” – Dr Hazmi Rusli, translated from Utusan.

However…

 

There’s a chance that Malaysia can get the lighthouse back, or make it defunct

The jetty on Pulau Pisang, which starts the road leading to the lighthouse. Img from MHOnline.

The jetty on Pulau Pisang, which starts the road leading to the lighthouse. Img from MHOnline.

For Dr Hazmi, we’ve already lost Batu Puteh, so we can’t afford to lose Pulau Pisang as well. He suggests for Malaysia to perform a review on the 1990 Agreement to put the management of the lighthouse under the Marine Department of Malaysia.

He also suggests for Malaysia to place buoys in the area of Pulau Pisang, as a replacement to the lighthouse as a navigation aid. Lighthouses, he says, are no longer relevant in modern sea navigation.

“With these buoys, the lighthouse can be relieved of its function and Singapore’s MPA will have no need to be on Pulau Pisang, which had been admitted by Singapore’s ruler himself to belong to Malaysia.

This step is important in ensuring Malaysia’s full sovereignty on Pulau Pisang is not being sidelined. Pulau Pisang rightfully belongs to Malaysia and we need to ensure that it doesn’t fall into the hands of other countries.” – Dr Hazmi Rusli, translated from Utusan.

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